A 10 Step Guide to Beautiful Photos

A 10 Step Guide to Beautiful Photos

By Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh - http://stephaniecavanaugh.com

All images copyright Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.

Take beautiful photos. Be awesome. Repeat.

I've been taking photos since I was old enough to know what a camera is. It always fascinated me - and it still does. A rather unique form of both peace and tension wash over me when photographing. I also know, all too well, that excitement when downloading your masterpieces: finally seeing them, no longer a little thumbnail glimpse, but instead, big and bold on your computer screen - when the realization kicks in ... uggh ... these are not so awesome. 

Fear not, fellow photo makers ...

I've learned some tricks over the years that significantly improve the awesomeness of your photos. And here they are. You're welcome.


#1 Define: a clear subject

Nothing is worse than a photo with an unclear subject. Before pressing the shutter release (or the take photo button on your phone), ask yourself ... what am I trying to capture? This may sound simple. But all too often, people simply point and shoot, without giving this the proper consideration it deserves.

Take the photo as example, "1865 Astronomy Book I". I received this magical book from my grandmother, who found it in her attic a long time ago. I wanted to capture a visual essence of its beauty to share. Is there any question as to the subject of this photograph? No. Why? ... what did I do? Rather than just standing there and pointing the camera at it, I got very close. This does a couple of things. It makes the subject clear by giving it a stronger presence in the frame. It also blurs out the insignificant background noise, so your eyes are not distracted by it. I'll further discuss that later.

In the digital age, people too often just fire away, taking a million photos without pausing to think. Imagine for a moment instead, that you are using film. You have one roll of 12 or 24 frames. How would you shoot differently? Take your time. Pause. Be intentional. Define a purpose.

Once you've defined your subject, you can then move on into my remaining tips to creating beautiful photos. You are now one step closer to achieving awesomeness. 


  • Pause to reflect on your goal
  • Don't just point and shoot
  • Be intentional in what you're capturing

#2 Placement: AKA - aspect ratio

In photography, this has also been called the rule of thirds or making your tic-tac-toe board. The big take-away is this: don't put your subject in the center. Why? Because this is boring. It loses the attentive eye of your audience quickly. Now before you stop me, tell me this is wrong, and show some fabulous contradicting example ... there are situations where a center subject works very well. However, this is not the norm.

So why do people so often put the subject in the center? Because that is the first instinct when pointing the camera to take a photo. That doesn't mean it is the right or more aesthetically pleasing thing to do, however. So what should you do instead? Imagine your frame as a tic-tac-toe board. You have three equal imaginary rows going horizontally and three equal imaginary columns going vertically. This creates nine imaginary, equal sized, squares. Just don't put your subject in the center square. The best place to put it is at one of the four cross-hairs (or as I prefer to call them - angry rabbits). If you are working with a landscape scene, try to keep to the rule of thirds ... Example: two-thirds of the frame land, one-third sky.

In my example, "Abandoned", my subject is the hole in the glass and the feeling it creates (creating emotion discussed later). It is in the bottom third of the frame and the window panes themselves create a sort of tic-tac-toe division. Once you understand placement, you are ready for the journey.


  • Imagine a tic-tac-toe board
  • Don't put your subject in the center
  • Two-thirds land, one-third sky, works well for landscapes

#3 Journey: leading lines and diagonals

So we now have a clear subject and we know where to put it. But what about the journey? Where in our photo do we want to lead our viewer's attention? The idea here is to not just have the viewer see the subject and then leave, but rather to create an intentional journey throughout your photograph.

Naturally, the eye moves across the frame like a book: In a "Z" pattern, starting on the top left. So you want to keep this in mind, to really take your viewer somewhere. Make them see more than just the main subject. Give them glimpses. Details. Tell a story.

There is another thing to keep in mind when thinking about this journey and it overlaps a little into emotion. If a living creature is part of your subject, be it a cat, a human, or a scary monster ... the mind tends to be drawn to the eyes of the subject. And it matters where the eyes are looking. If looking straight on, it gives the idea of a present connection to the viewer. If looking to the left, it gives the idea or thought of the past. If looking to the right, the future.

Let's look at my "Blue River I" example. This was taken at a very pretty park in Missouri. However, it was a long car ride there and I was feeling a bit car sick, so I'm quite thrilled that it turned out as nice as it did, given the circumstances of my misery at the time. Remember the "Z" pattern and notice how the direction of the subject, the river, compliments the top left to bottom right flow. But remember also, the journey. What else do you notice, besides the subject, as I lead you through the photograph? Perhaps the nice running trail alongside the river. Or the pretty colors of the autumn foliage, that pop out against the vivid blue of the water. I'll discuss more about the importance and impact of color, in topic six.

Imagine also, for a moment, that this photo is flipped horizontally - the river now flowing top right to bottom left. Notice how this completely alters the feeling that the photo evokes and changes the dynamics of the scene entirely. Rather than getting a peaceful feeling, do you sense a bit of tension or stress?


  • Create a journey or story and include details
  • The eye moves naturally over a photo in a "Z" pattern
  • Looking to the left is the past, looking to the right is the future

#4 Focus: AKA depth of field

In photography, there are a couple things that impact focus. Aperture involves the size of the opening in the shutter, that allows light in and how much ... this relates to Depth of Field (DOF). A large aperture means a shallow depth of field and a small aperture means a deep depth of field.

What does that mean? A shallow depth of field is shown in my photo, "Butterfly III". This was taken at a very fabulous place that I quite enjoyed, in southern Georgia. I was surrounded by these wonderful flying beauties. Shallow depth of field is when you have strong focus on one plane, or area, of the frame ... and the rest is strongly blurred out. This happens when you really zoom in on something and it also means a bigger opening in the shutter (relates to F-Stop) and thereby, more light. In contrast, deep depth of field, is when pretty much everything in the photo is in focus, such as landscapes and my "Blue River I" photo.

I like to think of aperture like my vision ... which is really bad. If I don't have my contacts or glasses ... well let's just hope that never happens. But if I am not wearing them and I open my eyes really wide (large aperture), most things are really blurry. If I squint really tight (small aperture), more comes into focus. The aperture, depth of field, f-stop concept can be a little confusing, particularly if you are newer to photography. If you would like further information on these, I've found a great article that goes into a little more "depth" (pun intended) - Introduction to Aperture in Digital Photography, by Darren Rowse.

So which is better? This varies with each photo and story you are telling. It is up to you to determine the best route in each occasion. 


  • A large aperture means a small depth of field - more blur
  • A small aperture means a large depth of field - more focus
  • Use DOF to control areas of attention

#5 Light: let there be

Light plays such a huge part in photography ... in a seemingly endless number of ways. As it should ... given the word photography, means "writing with light". In this brief discussion on light, I really will not even scratch the surface. Light correlates with the above discussion of aperture and DOF as well. And I could write a whole book on the impact and role of light in film photography. But separately from that - let's discuss.

Light can be used in many different ways. It can be the subject itself, it can be used to draw attention towards the subject or away from areas you wish to be less prominent, it can be the guide on the journey through your photograph. The possibilities are endless.

In my photo "Bird Silhouette", light is what makes this photo work. Imagine if that intense light were not there. The photograph would fall apart. You would lose the subject, the bird. You would lose the mysterious yet curiously peaceful vibe the image creates. You would lose the detail in the shadows. The photo would be nothing without this bold character who illuminates the small but mighty morning bird.

Light is also the big player in the contrast of your photos, which I will further discuss in topic seven. But the point is, light is incredibly important and significantly impacts the look and feel of your photograph - and it can make or break it. So it should be given the attention and consideration it deserves. Light is the most important part of photography and without it, you would have no photo at all. So give it some respect.


  • Photography means "writing with light"
  • Light is the most important part of photography
  • Contrast is directly related to light

#6 Color: or lack there of

Color is highly impactful to the overall feel of a photograph. Similar to light, color can be in a sense, the subject itself. Or, it can be used to attract or distract from various elements or subject of the photo. Color should really be given some thought. In some instances, lack of color works the best and in others, color is what makes the photo fabulous.

Take the previously discussed "Bird Silhouette" example. Imagine if this were instead in color. It would not have the same bold contrast or mysterious vibe. In this case, lack of color is the best solution and really accentuates the overall feel of mystery. However, looking at the "Blue River I" example, it is the vibrant color that makes it wonderful. If it were instead in black and white, it would completely lose its potency and would be absolutely boring and unpleasurable to look at.

A splash of color used to accentuate certain areas of an image can sometimes work as well, such as in my "Lily Pad Green" example. Here, I gave the lily pad background areas of the image high contrast and no color. This was done so as to not attract as much attention. However, I kept the vivid green in the frog so the eye is drawn to the subject and the color also is representative of the life within ... softly speaking, emerging from its watery home.


  • Color can be the subject itself
  • Lack of color can also be the key to making the photo a success
  • Use color as an assist to communicate your story or journey

#7 Contrast: highlights and shadows

I would venture to say that contrast is almost as important as light. Particularly when it comes to black and white photography. Back in the film photography era, contrast and grain were determined both in the development and amount of agitation of the negatives on the reel, as well as under the darkroom enlarger and use of chemicals. And that was after going through all the bracketing and exposure adjustments when taking the photo. In these days, the camera always saw white as 18% grey. It was Ansel Adams, who developed a brilliant process, called the Zone System, to compensate for this. I've done many photography projects using this system. I could write a whole article, but for the purposes here, let's concentrate on other elements of contrast. If you are interested in learning more about Ansel Adams and the Zone System, I've found a great article, that I recommend - Understanding & Using Ansel Adam's Zone System, by Diana Eftaiha.

In the now digital era, contrast is a much kinder bird to work with and it is much easier to make adjustments. Contrast involves your highlights and shadows, and is directly linked to light and exposure. The idea of contrast is basically this: Have blacks with detail on one end of the spectrum, whites with detail on the other, and a nice range of grey shades. Your contrast is too high the moment you start losing the details in your highlights (whites) and shadows (blacks). 

In my "Pyramids the Great" example, notice the wide range of shades ... from black to white and a large variety of grey. I took this in Giza in 2014. It was my first journey to Egypt. If you have never been there, to marvel at these wonders ... you are missing out. Absolutely breathtaking. If you would like to know more about my journey in Egypt, I recommend reading my articles, "Travel By Way Of ..." and "There Was A Mosque In Egypt ..." for a taste. Back to the discussion at hand, notice also the impact of the light. The brightness of the desert sun on the far right sky, the shadow and placement of the small stone in the bottom left ... one of the details that is part of the journey. Without that small stone, the photo would be lacking. 


  • Contrast is almost as important as light
  • Highlights and shadows relate to contrast
  • Don't lose detail in the blacks and the whites

 #8 Feelings: say yes to emotion

I've brushed on creating feeling earlier. Let's look for a moment at "Leaf Water". What emotion does this image communicate? A small but vibrant little leaf, clinging to a pillar of strength in the shadowy depths of turbulent water. Hope? Strength? Overcoming obstacles? Hanging on? A little bit of sadness mixed with strength and hope and fear?

If not for evoking a feeling, emerging some deep emotion ... be it happiness, sadness, shock, anger, or something else ... then really, what is the point? Evoking and communicating some form of emotion with your image is critical and necessary. I think sometimes, people worry about creating an emotion with their work for fear of offending or somehow making someone uncomfortable. I myself, have struggled with this as well. However, it is vital to move past this. Some of the best photos ever taken, were uncomfortable or offensive. Art should not be confined into a box of nice feel good things. Art should never be confined. Remember that. Be bold. Be daring. Be brave.


  • Evoking or communicating some form of emotion is critical
  • Don't be afraid
  • Be daring, bold, brave

#9 Clean: it up

Now that we've covered the basics, it's time to put the finishing touches and adjustments to your photographs before they are a finished masterpiece. This is the time to make any crops, lighting adjustments, contrast corrections, etc. If you prefer special effects and filters, apply them now. I recommend using Adobe Photoshop due to its near infinite editing possibilities. If you are a fan of editing from your phone, with some preference of prepackaged filter and adjustment options, I recommend the app, Snapseed.

Some people are partial to less edited, more natural photographs and others like to apply layers upon layers of special effects. The choice is yours and is an entirely personal one. 


  • Make any final edits
  • Add any desired filters or special effects
  • Be ready to share

#10 Admire: and share*

Now you are ready to share your awesome and beautiful art with the world. Where you share is up to you. But share ... make the world a little better through art.


  • Share with the world!

*You are now awesome.


About the Author:

Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh

Hi, I'm Stephanie ... pleasure to become virtually acquainted. Thanks for reading my blog and giving me reason to write. Please note the views and opinions communicated here are my own and I do not represent any particular group or organization. 

Interests, ever-evolving:  Photography, painting, art, science, medicine, astronomy, yoga, travel, the world, culture, language, education, women's rights, human rights, making the world a kinder and more beautiful place.

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